“Being sorry and coloured at the same time”, says the Lady in Orange, “it’s so redundant in the modern world”. She has a point, I think, as I sit wide-eyed in a crowded theatre, so sure that she is speaking directly to me.
It is hard to forget, in moments when I am feeling particularly sorry for myself, that I am “coloured” (ignore the archaic phrase for a moment). It is hard to forget, being in Oxford, being reminded of all this privilege that I have (that I’ve worked hard for, that my parents did not even dare to imagine, that their parents could not dare to imagine), that I am coloured. I don’t have the time to feel sorry for myself, I have work to do – right?
Women – ladies, girls – walk, dance, skip across the stage, barefoot, donned in bright colours, owning their bodies, taking up space. Beautiful against the dark walls of the Burton Taylor Studio – careful lighting and costume display the beauty of melanin – these women are, I think selfishly, me.
For Colored Girls is a series of twenty interconnected poems, a “choreopoem”, that explores, with an excruciatingly painful candour, personal stories of violence, loss, love, hope, and renewal. It is not a linear narrative. Actors moved seamlessly from poem to poem: dancing to Candy at one moment, then sitting together on the floor and noting that the “nature of rape has changed” the next. Yet it is not a jarring experience. The mediums of poetry, music, and song mean that the alternating narratives flow into one. There is not one story that belongs to the Lady in Red, or the Lady in Green: all stories belong to all. The characters speak in vernacular, repeat themselves, appearing to only realise the weight of their words once they have been spoken. Even when not speaking, sitting onstage watching their co-stars express themselves, the coloured girls inhabit every tale, silently encouraging their differently coloured counterparts to speak.
And this is what the play is about: allowing the coloured girl to speak.
It is very rare that this happens in real life – trust me. When it does, the coloured girl is “an evil woman, a bitch, or a nag”. She cannot raise her voice too loud, because she might scare someone. However, in the theatre, trapped by social convention, closed doors, and silent audience members, the coloured girl is able to speak. This is the beauty of Ntozake Shange’s piece; this is the beauty of performing such a piece in a space like Oxford. An intimacy that focuses solely on the lives of black women, the beautiful and the haunting, is something that Oxford desperately needs.
This is Oxford’s second all BAME performance, the first with an all-female cast and crew. It is odd and disconcerting that this is a first in 2018. Yet this makes For Colored Girls all the more poignant. With a play so focused upon taking up space, reconfiguring what is mainly a white male mode of expression – particularly when considering crew – these students have turned Shange’s work (interestingly, the second play by a black woman to reach Broadway, after Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun) into a force that promises to bring change to theatre in Oxford.
Plays and productions of this nature have a pressure to deliver something life-changing: something that turns a place like Oxford into the utopia all the prospectuses present it as. Shange’s piece definitely gestures towards this, and the brilliant performances by each and every member of the cast had me leave the theatre with a new-found sense of peace, both in myself, and the direction the world is moving in (don’t worry, by the time this is published, I’m sure something in the news will ruin that). But this is not, at least to me, what For Colored Girls is meant to do. The play stresses the stories that black women keep to themselves, it stresses how healing speech can be, and significantly, stresses that black women are allowed to feel pain.
The colours in this play – in the costume, in the lighting, in the words – are all expressions of blackness and womanhood, and the foregrounding of this is integral to this production and every production of For Colored Girls. However, the universalising factor of this play, shown skilfully across the hour and twenty minutes, is how one discovers and loves their self. The rainbows, displayed teasingly at the edge of either side of the stage, reflect the final image of the coloured ladies holding each other, becoming whole through and with each other. The process of the play is not complete, certainly, but, to quote Shange, they ‘are movin’ to the ends of their own rainbow’. We are encouraged to do the same.